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The Summer Forest

This morning, the sun flowed into the Mt. Erie forest, bringing dawn coolness as I climbed from the trailhead to the mountaintop.  Later, the sun would stream with the heat of afternoon through my living room’s open windows, making me glad I’d gone to the trails early.  The going was slow for many reasons: I’m old, I’m starting over again, I was waiting for John, the woods were summer-scented and visually stunning.

The boggy bottoms where the skunk cabbage stunk up the air a month or two ago were mostly muddy, decaying vegetation heading already towards fall and winter.  An inch above the mud, swarms of mosquitoes kept me moving forward.  In several places, I had to duck the drapes of ocean spray flowers that dangled over the trail.  It’s a good year for ocean spray.  The forest floor unrolled in buds of periwinkle blue, delicate white, bold yellow, and pale lilac.  I’ll have to return with the camera soon.

I find solace beneath the trees.  A part of me wants to linger, to run gently.  But I’m finding that my runner brain has been kicking in a little more lately.  I’ve set some mileage goals and some time goals.  I’m keeping track again.  I remind myself that I’ve won my age division or better in every decade I’ve been running.  I’m wondering if I have another 50K in me in this my seventh decade.  I’ve even checked some race results for ultras in the area.  There are some fast 70-79 age-group women out there running.  I’m impressed and inspired.

The last time John and I went walking, two days before he died, we managed about 100 meters.  So I have a ways to go.  And I’ll miss my coach.  Some days are very lonely out there under the trees.  Some days I talk to John while I’m heading up the trail.  And some days, like this morning, I talk to the trees.  It’s a journey.  For all of us.

Mornings Again

 

When I first started running, back in the seventies, I ran mornings, eight to ten miles before work.  I liked the coolness of early day, the quiet before cars and busses began their treks from home to office or school, the solitude of the trails or roads, the darkness of winter or the yellow promise of summer.  And when I got home from work in the late afternoon or early evening, I liked slipping into old clothes or pajamas and reading or writing or watching movies or listening to music and eating.  I chose my first ultramarathon because it started at four in the morning.  And I won that race, thanks to the brilliant aid from my daughter and my youngest son’s high school track team yelling “Go Mom” every lap.  All this is not to say I didn’t sometimes run in the evenings.  But morning runs were my joy.

Then I met John.  Our first semi-official get together was to run the Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials course in Olympia, Washington. On a Sunday afternoon.  In the heat.  With lots of other people running around too.  If he hadn’t been a talker and a storyteller, those twenty-six plus miles would have been a motivational challenge for me.  I would have been looking for shortcuts home long before the finish line.  I soon learned that John was an afternoon runner, an after work runner.  He liked to shed the stresses of the workplace in the evenings.  He liked that time wasn’t an issue after work.  He liked to go as far as he wanted, as slow or fast as he wanted, or walk if he wanted.  He felt freer in the evenings.  Over time, I transferred most of my runs to the evenings too.  Because I wanted to be with him.

When we went to walk the Camino de Santiago, our six-hundred-mile trek across Spain, we would talk about all the pilgrims that had also walked those trails, stumbled across those rocks, sat beside those rivers and crossed Roman-built bridges, slept under olive trees, and found shade in the coolness of medieval churches.  For more than a thousand years, pilgrims had been walking.  We felt their presence beside us, we felt their hands brushing against ours, we heard their laughter and understood their joy.

I’m back to walking mornings.  Sometimes running.  Back to the coolness under the leafy trees of springtime, back to the quiet.  I miss my afternoon running companion, but I feel him beside me now in the mornings.  I feel his hand brushing against mine.  I feel his joy.  I think he just might be a morning runner now.

Back to the Trails

After a week of rain and with the promise of some clearing, I went to the trails at Ft. Ebey State Park today.  Last Sunday, I’d driven to a trailhead near Mt. Erie in Anacortes and couldn’t find a parking place.  A rare, brilliant, sunny, weekend day had brought out the masses.  As I adhere to the loneliness-of-the-long-distance runner philosophy these days, I turned around and went home.  Today I was rewarded with, mostly, empty trails.  And, mostly, silence and solitude as well.  But as I went off down the familiar trails, I thought, perhaps, that there was too much room in my head for thinking about someone, for missing someone.  So I concentrated on seeing, not so difficult, because beauty is everywhere at Ft. Ebey.

This is what I saw:  an immature bald eagle drafting on the wind; a submarine with its flotilla of escort vessels running south in Admiralty Inlet; two amorous ravens swiftly slipping through the trees; bicycle ruts and skid marks on the descents into the kettles; storm clouds over the Olympics; snowy mountain ridges and peaks stealing glances through the windows of the storm clouds over the Olympics; gorse; a baby in a backpack, sleeping; two yappy West Highland terriers straining at their leashes; one sedate full-sized white poodle; cat’s-paws on the water; yellow blossoms on the Scotch broom; winter wrens playing in the shadows of fallen Douglas firs; robins and towhees and flickers and juncos; a merlin far from the prairie; my first, of the season, rufous hummingbird; footsteps on the sandy beach, as seen from the bluff trail; blue fingers on the tips of Sitka spruce; green grass sprouting beneath brown ocean spray; trail signs whispering to turn uphill at the next junction; a seal swinging on a buoy; the buoy.  Gray skies, gray water, gray world fading into evening rust and rose.

This is what I didn’t see:  John.

Running Diaries

I’m reading John’s old running diaries. By 1984, the year the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials came to his town, I’d been running for six years, with several marathons in my own running log and one ultra. I didn’t know John yet. I was still bumming around Europe on a solo backpacking jaunt. I’m meeting him earlier than I actually did through his words in these early diaries. Before he started running, John was slamming tennis balls at opponents, biking long distances, and playing volleyball. 1984 changed all that. Who wouldn’t be inspired by a hundred or so young women running like gazelles around the neighborhood?

Because John was so physically fit, he made every running mistake newbies make when first hitting the roads and trails. His logs are full of achy ankles, swollen knees, sore quads, strained calf muscles. He ran dehydrated, dressed too light for the cold and overdressed for the heat, ran too far on not enough food, wore the wrong pair of socks with the wrong pair of shoes, signed up for every race within a hundred miles. And even when he was so tired he could hardly get up in the morning, he still signed up for races.

In his running diaries, he wrote down the usual “stuff” we all write down: distance, time, pace, weather, where and when, alone or together, hurt or healthy. But John wrote down something else that I find interesting. Maybe because it is one of those things I’m finding most difficult in these days of my early widowhood. He wrote down the shoes he wore. He had a lot of shoes—Adidas, Brooks, Reeboks, Sakos, Trilogy, Pumas, Shadows, 670s, Americas, New Balance, Quasars.

In the closet, in the garage, in the mudroom, John’s shoes are still lined up. The road shoes, the trail shoes, the muddy shoes, shoes leaning inward, laces hanging awkwardly, colors faded. I can’t seem to put them in a box or give them to charity. I will, in time, but not yet. Instead, I go back to reading diaries. I like the entry in early January, 1986, when he first mentions my name.

The Need for the Buckle

— [from when buckles meant 100 miles] —
—– [sort of: you have lots of time to get this done] —–

The only question people outside of the ultrarunning family know to ask is, “Have you done (a) Western or (b) Leadville?” Those two have been on national television. A few outsiders might know of Badwater (not the original). I was buying a pair of trail shoes and someone asked the question sequence. “Do you run ultramarathons?” “Yes.” “Have you done the Western States 100?” Hmmmm, “No.” End of conversation–probably a good thing. I love running, talking about running, or writing about running—probably boring to outsiders.

I thought on this as I pedaled home. My ego was bruised. I once won a 100 km run. The local newspaper editor killed the interview/story because he “knew” no one could run that far. I set a masters’ course record for 50 miles, but was second overall; thus was not the “winner”. I won a 34.5 mile whatsit, but the response is often, “Why the weird distance?” All my credentials, if indeed, that is what they are, were lacking. I had long ago failed the “serious runner” exam by enjoying runs–by “sacrificing the gift” and not going all out at every gathering.

At age 57 I tucked tail, ran here and there in the Willamette Valley of Oregon all through  spring and part of the summer, and then went to Leadville. I ran for a while; 27:13:41 (might, or might not, be close), got a hug from Merrilee, an old fashioned handshake from Ken, a finisher’s sweatshirt, and a buckle.

———- Run gently out there ———-

A Birthday with Mom

August 10th of 1991, my mother’s 79th birthday.  The first birthday I was near enough to visit in several, perhaps many, years.  The 10th was on a Saturday.  Kathy and I were in grad school at the University of Arkansas and neither of us had classes on Friday; coupled with Monday’s schedule we had a three and a half day weekend.  I called mom telling here we would be down Thursday evening and to pack for a weekend trip.  She was always ready to travel.

We went down into southern Arkansas, farms and pines, a small town here and there.  Mom was a steady stream of historical comments.  She was born in 1912.  She was the first in her family, son or daughter, to go beyond the eighth grade.  She went to St. Vincent’s Infirmary in Little Rock, Arkansas and became a nurse — a Registered Nurse, an RN; the kind that had a funny-shaped piece of starched cloth that she would fold just so and–Presto!  She had her nurse’s cap.  What I have long wished I had was her knowledge of plants and trees.  She would combine her professional knowledge with some pieces of ground up “weeds” to make an ointment, a salve, a poultice.  She made me a toothbrush from a Sweet Gum tree once.  Now she was looking into the woods along the road as we drove I do not know where.

“Slow down,” she said as we drove down a shade-darkened dirt road.  Kathy and I looked at the gigantic cottonwood trees and tall grasses alongside the road.  We wondered what was on her 79-year-old mind.  “Stop,” she said, “Yes, here,” added as if she could read my curiosity.  She got out.  We got out.  She walked along the road, head half turned to the trees.  She stopped, looked at me, smiling as she said, “Come here.”  We followed her.  She pointed, smiled again and said, “See the trail?”

“Yes, I could see a trace of a trail.”

We walked a few minutes and came to the edge of the woods.  The trace continued along the edge of a recently planted field.  She pointed to the next patch of trees a quarter mile or so away, “We would walk along here, then through those trees to school.  School was about three miles from home.”  The whole mom-is-senile thing vanished.  She had taken us home; her home of sixty-five years ago.

We found some old buildings, almost hidden in a willow thicket–brambles and briers had grown into an impassable barrier.  We bent and looked in.  She said she didn’t think anyone had lived here since 1965–twenty-five years ago.  I was sort of sure, but I asked, “Was this home?”

“Yes, this was home for my first fourteen years.”  It was quite a voice; a whisper; a cracking with emotion; knowledge all the others are gone.  We walked a bit more, but there was no more conversation.

We took two days to get back to where she now lives — not home, just an address; a place to pass time, years and days.

Three months and sixteen days later; five years and fifteen days after my father had died, I got the phone call saying we needed to come to Russellville for another funeral.

Twenty-five years and some have come and gone.  We were given that last trip full of history, memories, and parental love.

Mother’s Day — a bittersweet happiness flows forth.

cem_fay_name 029

Happy Mother’s Day.

A Late Winter Night

A ten percenter with no thoughts of electioneering whatsoever.  The clouds obscure just enough to make the crescent partly a witch’s doing; partly an act of wind, humidity, and ravens.  I shivered.  It is too cold to sit on the steps and attempt to take a picture.  I could go get the tripod for the needed stillness, but one cloud or another works against me and the only bit of sureness comes from the left.  Sirius went away, obscured by clouds, in the few minutes I had stood there.  The next skirmish line of the meteorological oscillation known as El Niño is on the way.

Sirius is that low?  Vernal equinox is next week–next Saturday at about 9:30 p.m. PDT here in the Pacific Northwest.  It doesn’t seem that long ago that the excitement over finding the Pleiades before midnight caused Kathy to come running in to say “they’re back!”  They, in this household, are the Seven Sisters–we once knew all seven names–hot blue bits of brilliance barely a 100 million years old, projected to vanish in another 250 million years.  They, the Seven Sisters of Greek mythology, are Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, and Alcyone, along with their parents, Atlas and Pleione form the nine brightest stars of the Pleiades.

A more romantic and imaginative name is Messier 45, or, simply, M45.

Photo: Jimmy Westlake--steamboattoday.com
Photo: Jimmy Westlake–steamboattoday.com

Equinox approaches and The Pleiades, Orion, and Sirius will vanish from our night sky. Other years would have found us going to Oregon’s high desert, to a place with no lights for one last night sky show.  We might have found the same dirt road twice.  We don’t know.  We know that night, ‘long about midnight, one of us would raise the tent flap and check for a clear sky–then wake the other with the whispered, “They’re out.”  Layers would be pulled on.  The tent had been pitched with south in mind.  A blanket, folded and placed near the flap was spread on the cold sand.  Some giggling ensued.  On a cold desert floor with no real need for binoculars but some pointing, as if to assure identification of, and connection to, the ‘Sisters, then to Orion, then to Sirius.

A hundred million years ago.

Only 250 million years to go.

Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, Alcyone, Atlas, and Pleione–each pointed to and acknowledged as old bones grow cold on a late winter’s night somewhere southeast of Bend.

———– Run gently out there ———-

Welcome — at a basic level

You would think with as many words as I have put on paper, screen, or scratch pad, this would all be simple.  You pay a fee, receive an e-mail confirming some company’s rights to your first-born child, a jar of fresh pico de gallo and, presto, you have a blog.

Okay.  I have a blog.  The most exciting part for today is the generic announcement, “The book is finally done, sigh…” just down and to the right.

Thank you for visiting.  Things will change.  This will become home.

Run gently out there.

John M.